Who will win the Olympic legacy?

Today OurKingdom is concluding 'The Great British Summer' series with a debate at London's Cafe Oto. Anthony Barnett introduces this conversation, reflecting on the political significance of the Olympic celebrations. Who will be empowered in the aftermath? 

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 September 2012

An Olympic victory parade will be staged in London today, setting out from the City’s Mansion House at 1.30 for Buckingham Palace.  But who will win in the longer run?

An expected 800 athletes from both games will cross the capital in special, sponsored floats along with a planned 14,000 of the 70,000 volunteers and support workers, in a massive parade. Enormous numbers of spectators are expected and the Mall will be tickets-only using the stands already in place. According to the report in the Guardian by its Olympic Editor, Owen Gibson, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson announced: 

“no sporting heroes will have been more lauded, no achievements more celebrated, and no nation more passionately proud than at the Our Greatest Team parade, which will sweep through central London in a glorious miasma of colour, noise and excitement."

The miasmatic Johnson told the BBC:

"This is a chance to celebrate the heroes and heroines who have thrilled us with their skills, sportsmanship, and grace during London's spectacular Olympic and Paralympic Games, and whose names and triumphs will live on for centuries to come."

The Telegraph says a million people will line the streets. The Evening Standard projects millions, and expects William, Kate and Harry to be taking part. Perhaps Harry will be dropped to avoid his being cheered on for less than divine reasons.  

Either way, ‘the firm’, guided by its Way Ahead Group, now plans to share out the leadership of the Royal family, as part of a planned transition to “new foundations”, plans that included yesterday’s abseiling down the prick of Qatar by Prince Andrew, according to a detailed account by Robert Jobson and Jonathan Prynn – which emphasises how the illness of Prince Philip, the Monarch’s male consort, has accelerated the calculations of the Palace.

They are not the only people thinking about who will win in the long term. As the millions disperse a lucky few will be gathering tonight at Café Oto in East London, under openDemocracy’s offices, to argue about what the past months of popular celebration in the face of austerity means - for the future of London, England, British culture and liberty. Tickets are still available and we hope you can join us. If not, Resonance FM will broadcast the event on FM and online, and it will also be published on OurKingdom inviting all to participate in the after-debate.  

A conversation, not a series of lectures, the event will close OurKingdom’s debate ‘The Great British Summer?’ and start openDemocracy’s move towards encouraging ‘real-life’ meetings of its readers and contributors inspired by our new Editor-in-Chief, Magnus Nome.

The event will open with Suzanne Moore who embraced the Olympics, to her own surprise, arguing in the Guardian that they displayed (in terms drawn from Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution), an “emergent” culture displacing the once dominant imperial and racist order. She was also knocked out by the Paralympics, telling her Sunday Mail readers they are “making the impossible normal”.

Suzanne will be joined by Dan Hancox, the editor of OurBeeb and author of a new ebook, Utopia and the Valley of Tears; Vron Ware who has just finished Military Migrants a riveting account of the changing nature of the British Army, viewed through the experience of their immigrant recruits; and the novelist and Observer columnist Henry Porter.

Also invited to join in from the floor are Richard Seymour, the formidably mordant blogger at Lenin’s Tomb who made clear his contempt for patriotism condensed onto “pointless, boring, sports” in Puke Britannia, Sunder Katwala, director of think-tank British Future, who takes the quite opposite view, and Nick Franglen who created his own secret Olympic garden in East London.  

The opening ceremony will doubtless be a reference point. I was fascinated by the exceptional mobilisation of popular support for the ordinary, and disagreed with Amal de Chickera that it was a failure, while Aaron Peters disagreed with me (and Sunder Katwala) seeing the Danny Boyle extravaganza as a failure to engage with Britain today and there was a comeback too from Selina O’Grady.

A major battle will ensue over its ideological inheritance. The ceremony’s writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who worked under Danny Boyle’s direction, was very interesting on this in a recent Q&A session in The Independent . First, he insisted on its openness:

"It was a work of art, not an educational resource pack! Works of art mean whatever their audience wants them to mean. The point is not what they mean but what they make you feel. Danny created something visceral, funny and moving. The only politics that matters is that so many people from such different backgrounds shared so fully in that experience. In laughing together we experience the joy of our common humanity."

As for the legacy he himself wanted, he answered:

"Political discourse is largely addressed to the worst of us. I'd like to see the best of us – the idealistic, altruistic, connected side of us – taken into account. When it comes to motivation, for instance – for years, we've been told that you need to give massive salaries and bonuses to the "best" people in order to keep them. In the past two weeks, we've seen brilliant work done by people – athletes, coaches, volunteers – who have no notion of financial reward. The best people are attracted to challenges, and driven by loyalty, vision, altruism, fun. People who can be bought for big salaries are not the best but, in fact, the worst – disloyal, unimaginative, restless and unsatisfied. For years, we've been systematically seeking out the very worst people and putting them in charge of our banks and big companies."

I want to emphasise the potential importance of this claim. Ten years ago – as openDemocracy began – the world was utterly dominated by the ideology and politics of neo-liberalism. Its market fundamentalism did not just rule the roost, there was no organised or coherent opposition capable of an influential, shaping, popular public presence. There were many efforts but these were overwhelmingly defensive.

Did the opening ceremony show that another way of governing ourselves is possible? Was it linked to the energy and desires of the Occupy movement? Or will it be folded into the continuation of the royal spectacle consuming our desires? Who will claim the potential of the Olympic legacy and how?

The issue now is who will claim the legacy and work with its energy.

The leading contender is the Mayor of London, whose historic opponent, Ken Livingston, was the politician most responsible for the popular, multicultural character of the original bid as well as its location in East London. Britain’s answer to Berlusconi, Johnson is the past master of appealing to the worst of everyone – while making it fun. Shamelessly proclaiming an imperial grandeur he said, “London has put on a dazzling face to the global audience. For the first time since the end of the empire, it truly feels like the capital of the world”. While at the same time dropping in to have an undeclared dinner with Rupert Murdoch he then invited the man responsible for running a tightly controlled company involved in wholesale hacking, conspiracy to pervert justice and corruption of the London Metropolitan police, to watch the Games with him, saying – ominously as the Mayor oversees the accountability of the Met – that Murdoch was not yet under investigation.

What’s going on? Who will ‘win’ the Olympics? You can join the discussion at Café Oto tonight and participate in the after debate here on OurKingdom.

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